Native Earth Teaching Farm in Chilmark is a multigenerational farm owned by Rebecca Gilbert, but was originally a failing sheep farm bought by her grandparents nearly 100 years ago. They brought it back to life. “My grandparents were homesteaders, raising their own food, and we carry that tradition on,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert and her husband Randy raise food and plants, take on caretaking and consulting work, and sell breeding stock and pets, both animals and poultry. They also teach classes, demonstrate farm crafts, give tours, and host a thriving community garden. At one point, they sold their goods at various markets, but over time (and as they’ve aged), they changed their focus. “Teaching people about farming wasn’t necessarily a popular thing in the past. Now, though, fewer than 2 percent of Americans are farmers,” Gilbert said. “So sharing how to farm has become more valuable for others, as well as for us.”
The farm sits on five acres, and is home to several animals, including goats, a friendly old (and a tad arthritic) sheep, geese, and a variety of ducks and chickens. There are also community gardens, a farmstand, and an outbuilding called the Milokan Cultural Center, which is operated by Rhythm of Life. According to the Milokan Cultural Center’s website, Rhythm of Life offers a wide range of programming and services, as well as opportunities for the community to drum, dance, sing, or enjoy a concert.
“Rick Bausman from Rhythm of Life Drumming holds classes, events, and rehearsals here. It’s really wonderful,” Gilbert said. “The space also extends my season a bit. There is a wood stove that will warm the place up well into late fall, at least, so if kids are coming to the farm and it’s pouring rain, we can come inside and do arts and crafts and other activities.”
One of the events that was recently held at the Milokan Cultural Center was an intentional grief ceremony, hosted by Gilbert and two grief counselors from Boston. “People trust farmers to be connected to reality, and to be blunt about how things are, including life and death,” Gilbert said. “With 20 years experience as a teaching farmer, grief counseling is part of my job. There’s a dark side to farming. Animals die. But death is inevitable, and we can learn about death from animals. Though we may have deeply profound relationships with animals, they offer us a relative who isn’t exactly like us, so there is a bit of a distance there.”
On the day I visited the farm, Islander Sidney Trott and her kids arrived. Trott homeschools her children, and says that the farm is invaluable to the homeschool community. “This is such a great place to get together with other homeschoolers. There is always something to do here,” Trott said. “We came just last week, but each week the kids find something new to do. They feed the animals, do arts and crafts, wool spinning, and they’ve also helped with things like getting medicine for a new goat. Rebecca shows them how to do things the right way. You just don’t get that at other farms.”
I watched as the children let the goats out from one fenced area, and fed another three goats who were impatiently waiting for their meal in another, one even standing on his hind legs and baying, as if to say, “Get a move on. I’m hungry!”
“It’s important for the kids to interact with the goats. It’s not natural for herd animals to trust humans,” Gilbert explained. ”But when they get to play with people starting at a young age, they’re good with it. It helps the kids and the goats.”
As we wandered around the property, the kids seemed to know exactly where to go, what animals were where, and what they needed. While heading to another area to let more goats out, the kids talked to each other and Gilbert about the animals they were familiar with. As Gilbert was telling me about Phoenix hens, one young man showed me exactly where to find them. “The Phoenix rooster is very noticeable. Sometimes it looks like he’s showing off,” Gilbert said. “But really, he’s protecting the hens, walking around attracting attention, to keep predators focused on him and off the hens.”
A number of goats at the farm recently gave birth, and the visiting children seemed to know which baby goat was which. They grabbed some leashes to walk the goats. A few weren’t having it, but the kids didn’t give up, the older ones helping the younger ones strap the collars on. “Rebecca lets the kids try all kinds of things,” Trott said. “She shows them how to do things, but then lets them do it.”
As we passed under a tree, one of the kids stopped and asked about the walnuts scattered on the ground. “These are black walnuts,” Gilbert says, holding one up. “They start off green. They look a little like avocados at first, then they turn black and fall to the ground. They’re great for drying and eating.”
“Really? You can eat these?” one of the kids asked. I was glad he asked, because I was just as surprised to hear this as he was.
“Yes,” Gilbert said. “They have a really great flavor — nice and strong.”
Gilbert seems to be a walking encyclopedia, and she shares that knowledge in a number of ways. She offers foraging classes, leading visitors around the gardens to discuss edible plants. She’s also written a book on foraging, “Weedy Wisdom for the Curious Forager.” Gilbert also offers a number of classes, including “Herbal Medicine Making: First Aid in the Field,” “Tinctures, and Smokes, Steams, Baths, and Poultices,” “From Fleece to Garment: Wool Processing,” “Hand Spinning,” “Natural Dyes,” “Beginner’s Knitting,” and more. Some of the community programs and drop-in adventures at the farm include goat yoga and indigo dying. On Sunday afternoons, Gilbert fires up the indigo vat, and introduces folks to the plants used for dying, and shows them how science, history, and art intersect. Chores with Rebecca are on Wednesdays and Saturdays, from 9 to 10 am. During this time visitors can socialize with the goats, deliver hay, feed hens, collect eggs, and engage in other seasonal farm activities.
Native Earth Farm also hosts birthday parties. “Once a family had a birthday party here for their 3-year-old. They also had a 3-month-old at home at the time, so having it here meant that crumbs could fall anywhere, and the family didn’t have to worry about cleaning up after the party. The goats did all the cleaning for them,” Gilbert laughed.
As Gilbert and I chatted, I wondered where she found all the required energy to keep the farm going. “As I get older, it can feel a little disappointing to give up things I used to do — like growing a million tomatoes,” Gilbert said, “but teaching and mentoring is great as well.”
Teaching and mentoring are great, of course, but also immensely important. According to npr.org, worldwide, the percentage of people who work in agriculture has dropped from 44 percent in 1991 to 26 percent in 2020. That’s partly due to agricultural technology, but it also points to a bigger problem: Many people don’t want to work on farms anymore, and many people don’t have access to fresh food. Though Native Earth Teaching Farm is a small outfit, it’s a pretty important one.
Though spring and summer are the busiest times at the farm, Gilbert remains busy over the winter ordering and organizing seeds, holding some classes, and planning for the next season. For a full list of classes and activities, and to learn more about Native Earth Farm, visit its website at nativeearthteachingfarm.org.